By OOI KEE BENG, Penang Monthly editorial, March 2021.
SOCIOLOGY IS THE study of how a certain society functions, and central to that ambition is the study of how different genders relate to each other in that society.
Getting to know the latter, however, requires socio-psychological insights into how the power relations between the genders evolved over the centuries, and how the dynamics of struggle continue to play out. To understand a culture, in other words, is more about understanding how the weaker party – in almost all cases, the women – has manipulated, negotiated and survived the sex war.
But in fact, if we adopt the war analogy in studying the history of gender interactions, then it is really a cold war we are dealing with, an endless confrontation full of contingent alliances, proxy conflicts and multi-frontal skirmishes, and littered with compromises, intrigues and betrayal.
A better way to depict the perpetual nature of the Male-Female war is perhaps as a push-hands contest, a symbiotic struggle where contact must be maintained as both attempt to dislodge the other from his or her preferred stance. Imagine such a struggle done over centuries, and one can see that cultures or societies will end up with a different paired pose between their genders, frozen yet fluid, conserved yet changing.
For those who do not know what push-hands is, this is a taijiquan, the soft martial art where two persons stand with bended knees and with lower arms touching as they revolve around each other, physically sensing each other’s intention and ultimately trying to push the other off balance, and be at your mercy. At this point, perhaps the analogy ends. In push-hands one will send the opponent flying to the ground. In the gender struggle, the physical contact must be maintained.
Gaining advantage over an adversary that one cannot do without is the game. But to describe specific gender relations, one needs to study the position of the supposed winner with that of the supposed loser. Like a sculpture, one has to capture how this unequal relationship balances, how this dancing couple achieves asymmetric stability over time.
If we imagine the relationship between Man and Woman back at the moment when a push-hands contest is about to begin, we accept an equal standing between them. That is perhaps the value that modern feminism wants the resetting of gender relations to express, the equality of the two.
On reaching this point in the argument, it appears that the question is not about equality as assumed before the contest starts, but about how the contest is to run. Can equality be maintained during the contest? And should there be an end to the contest? For if there is, then someone does lose and in doing that, also loses for good the status of being an equal.
What if we imagine a push-hands competition that does not end, where the goal is not to topple the other to the ground but instead to keep the dance going, equals forever.
Resetting the gender game can perhaps be reimagined by considering past suppression of one gender by another as a wrestling match where the winner keeps the loser on the ground while he or she struggles ceaselessly to break out from the chokehold, and by visualising the future of gender relations as a spirited dance that does not seek an end but is instead an end in itself.